Recreation, Exercise, and Competition

In today’s blog I’d like to share a model that can help you consider the different purposes that physical activity serves in your life, and get the most out of those activities.

Consider labeling physical activity in the categories of recreation, exercise, or competition.

  • Recreation is any physical activity done for enjoyment.
  • Exercise is a physical activity done with the intent of developing a specific physical capacity, such as strength or endurance.
  • Competition is any physical activity that tests you against past experiences or other people.

Take a moment to consider why you participate in certain activities: Is it for health? Fitness? Performance? Pleasure? These are all closely related, but they’re not the same.

I believe that each of us has a unique balance between these three categories, and when we find that balance, we’re closer to moving in more fulfilling ways.

The first goal is to have fun.

At MFF I’ve been labeled the “Fitness Isn’t Fun” guy, but that’s not actually how I feel about it. In fact, I feel like having fun is the first priority.

That’s the goal of recreation – to have fun. This could be walking, hiking, playing soccer, cycling, kayaking, tennis, rock climbing, swimming, or any other activity that can be played throughout your life span.

If you have a recreation activity that you love, that activity is undoubtedly going to be where you experience the most joy while moving, and that’s the whole point!

Sure, there are always physical health benefits, but the major reason you’re probably participating in that activity is that you have fun when you do it!

Exercise can be fun, too – but it doesn’t have to be.

Exercise is the hard work or effort that supports your ability to joyfully participate in recreation activities, so it might not be fun in the same way, and that’s okay!

Unless you don’t actually have a recreation activity. If that’s the case, please make sure you have fun while you exercise. After that, consider what you can do to include more purposefully-joyful activities in your life.

In today’s society, exercise has become a synonym for recreation, and I believe that most of our societal struggles with physical activity are because our priorities are in the wrong place. We’re focusing on exercising and competing, rather than recreation.

Exercise plays a supportive role to the star, which is how you prefer to recreate. I really do hope that it’s fun for you… but it doesn’t have to be fun to be useful or meaningful.

Competition is the exception, not the rule.

Most of the competitions that exist in the sports world are for endurance activities: Running, Cycling, Swimming, and Triathlons. There are also adult leagues for soccer, football, bowling, basketball, and baseball, that have playoffs or tournaments beyond their regular recreation leagues.

If you participated in one of these sports in high school or college, it’s obviously easier to get involved than if you didn’t play when you were younger.

Sure, it’s nice to put yourself under some healthy pressure, but you should know that racing or competing isn’t mandatory for living a healthy, physically active life. In the handful of bike races that I’ve done, I’ve enjoyed getting pushed outside of my comfort zone, but I honestly have more fun goofing around on smoother trails going at a slower pace.

If you’re competing at all, it’s going to be a pretty small percentage of your overall physical activity.

How to choose movement priorities

In a recent post, I shared my theory that group exercise classes have become popular because millennial culture uses group exercise class as a proxy for recreation activities.

Exercise is great, and I whole-heartedly believe each week we should have time dedicated to improving our fitness. I also think that trying to use exercise in place of recreation is a fool’s errand.

Our collective movement culture seems to have forgotten about recreation, about play, about getting outside and participating in activities for the sake of having fun.

If you’ve forgotten too, that’s okay! Give exercise the respect and time that it deserves, and create space away from the gym that lets you focus on moving and the art of having fun!


That’s my model, y’all – Recreation as our first priority, Exercise to support that participation, and Competition in case you want to test yourself.

Finding a balance that works for you is essential to moving with joy throughout your lifespan!

Thanks for joining me today. If you’d like to read these words, please head over to HaroldGibbons.com. Thanks!

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